Tenet: Nolan's Masterpiece on Fatalism and Free Will

Does TENET entail that we don’t have free will? (Spoiler alert: Yes!)

Posted Sep 15, 2020

The release of Christopher Nolan‘s latest film, Tenet, was delayed significantly thanks to the pandemic. But it’s finally out in US theaters and, consequently, I got to see it. As expected, it’s mind-bending and philosophically deep.

Things are already in the works for a chapter on the movie in my forthcoming Palgrave Handbook (Popular Culture as Philosophy), and the possibility of a "and-philosophy" book is being explored. In the meantime, a brief explanation of its philosophical themes is in order. Indeed, it is mandatory! Major spoilers ahead.

The movie alludes and utilizes the mysterious SATOR square, an ancient "palindromic" word square, carvings of which can be found around the world, including in the ruins of Pompeii.

M Disdero/Wikimedia Commons
The Sator Square
Source: M Disdero/Wikimedia Commons

As you can see here, it includes one palindrome – TENET – a word spelled the same forward and backward, and four others that are inverses of each other (SATOR/ROTAS & OPERA/AREPO). The former, of course, serves as the title of the film, with the latter appearing throughout. Sator is the name of the film’s villain. Rotas is the name of Sator’s construction company that built the Oslo Freeport. The movie begins at an opera, and Arepo is the name of an artist.

But the film itself is an embodiment of the concept of a palindrome. We follow the Protagonist (who is never named) moving forward in time, and then about halfway through the film, thanks to some sci-fi magic, the Protagonist reverses the direction in which he travels in time, and we revisit the events of the film with him, in reverse order. This, it turns out, gives us one of the most remarkable fight sequences since the twisting gravity sequence in Inception. The Protagonist fights himself as one version of himself goes forward in time, and the other goes backwards. We even see it from both points of view, at different points in the film.

It turns out that, when we first saw this fight, the Protagonist’s partner Neil managed to get his hand on the opponent’s gas mask and yank it off. This allowed Neil to realize that his opponent was a reversed version of the Protagonist. When the reversed version of the protagonist later asks (the reversed version of) Neil why he didn’t tell him this earlier, his response is simple. “What’s happened, happened.” It wouldn’t do any good to tell him because it wouldn’t—it couldn’t—change what happened. And this, it seems, is the first piece of the philosophical message to the film.

When the protagonist first reverses the direction in which he travels in time, he does so with the intention of preventing the villain Sator from acquiring the last section of the algorithm he just saw him acquire as he went forward in time. The protagonist thinks he can undo what happened—but he can’t. Indeed, in trying to go backwards and prevent Sator from getting the section, the Protagonist actually causes him to get it. When he fails, Neil says, “I warned you” and the Protagonist replies, “'What’s happened, happened.’ I get it now.”

This reflects philosopher David Lewis’ famous solution to the grandfather paradox—the argument that time travel is impossible because it would allow a time traveler to kill their own grandfather and negate their own existence (which, of course, is logically impossible). Time travel is possible, argues Lewis, if the structure of time itself is such that it would not allow for such paradoxes to occur. On this view, if a time traveler traveled to the past to kill his own grandfather, he would inevitably fail. Something would always prevent it. Indeed, whatever actions the time traveler is about to take “after” (from his perspective) he pushes the button on his time machine to go back in time…well, those actions would have already been a part of the past. Since the traveler doesn’t know what those actions are, it will seem to him that he can do whatever he wants. But his ignorance won’t change the fact that he can’t do anything but what he (from an objective perspective) “already” did. And since, clearly, the time traveler was born, he cannot do anything that would prevent his birth. “What’s happened, happened.”

This, of course, entails that the time traveler can’t act freely; he can only do what he is fated to do (or, we might say, what he already has done). But the interesting thing is, this is actually true of all of us. Einstein’s relativity entails that the distinction between the past and future is only a "stubbornly persistent illusion"—that all of time (what we would call the past, present, and the future) exists, as a whole, in one four-dimensional block. (This view is also called Eternalism or "omni-temporalism.") The future exists and is just as unchangeable as the past.

So, in the same way that our time traveler can’t do anything but what “he already did” in the past, you can’t do anything but what you will do in the future. Because of your ignorance of what the future holds, it may seem like you can do anything. But this is just an illusion; your fate is already sealed.

This, it seems, is one of the philosophical messages of the film: we are not free. Humans do not have free will. But the realization of this fact has pushed some to conclude that nothing they do matters, and thus that they should do nothing at all. “If my fate is sealed, then I might as well do nothing. What’s the point?” But this fundamentally misunderstands the above fatalist conclusion—and brings us to TENET’s second philosophical message…which we shall explore in my next entry.

Copyright 2020, David Kyle Johnson